When you hear a poem in an ad, especially a Super Bowl ad, it’s usually a safe and licensed choice lifted from the long-dead likes of Whitman or Frost.
But Coca-Cola went a different direction with its Super Bowl ad, building it instead around a lovely and original poem about inclusiveness, identity, individuality and, yes, Coke.
So was the ad written by a poet or a copywriter? Both, actually, in the form of Wieden + Kennedy Portland’s Becca Wadlinger, who cut her teeth on poetry long before she was recruited into the world of advertising. She has an MFA and Ph.D. in creative writing, plus a book of poetry on the way.
Artistry and attention-grabbing advertising don’t always work well together, but Coke’s spot found a charming balance of romantic visuals, well-crafted words and cultural resonance—all while effectively selling soda.
After the Big Game, Adweek spoke with Wadlinger about the ad, her background and her advice for those who wish they could bring more of their artistic passion to their ads.
Adweek: Were you involved with this project from the beginning, or were you brought in once the team realized a poetic tone would be the right fit?
Rebecca Wadlinger: I’ve been on the Coke account since I started at Wieden+Kennedy, so I’ve always been along for the ride.
Poetic copywriting, especially in a party atmosphere like the Super Bowl, can often sound self-indulgent and overly sincere. Yours really nailed it, though. How did you find the right balance?
I think poetry goes great with a party atmosphere, but maybe that says too much about the kind of parties I’m invited to. But really, I knew the spot was on the thoughtful side, so during the game I was crossing my fingers that we didn’t air after an exploding yacht driven by sexy unicorns or a centaur with Kelsey Grammer rapping as the top half.
As for the writing itself, it helps that the Coca-Cola brand has such a well-established, human voice. I’m thinking about the “reds,” or the text-only ads that have spoken directly to people for years. Coke is optimistic, so I let that lead the tone of the poem.
People who read my personal work know that it’s a very different kind of poetry from what you saw in the game. It’s dark and imaginative and surreal.
Similarly, gender identity can be a tough issue to present in an ad without seeming preachy, vague or out of step. How did you approach this aspect, and what did you hope to accomplish in terms of how it would be received?
We wanted to show the “wonder of us,” all of us, especially the “us” who are too often excluded from representation in media. The hope was for a positive response from communities who see, understand and know it matters. We had conversations about including a nonbinary actor with our director, Alma Ha’rel. She is a thoughtful, fierce, empathetic, badass director who has a clear point of view and connects with the people she shoots on a deep level. She shows their truth. Using directors like Alma—that’s key.
How did you watch the game? What was the experience of seeing the ad like?
I watched it at home with my husband and 3-year-old daughter. It was a beautiful, magic 60 seconds, and then the world started turning again.
Did you watch the real-time response to the ad on Twitter, etc., or just unplug and call it a night?
Immediately after the game ended, my partner Brad Trost and I were on a client call about the next project we sold, which airs in a few months. The Eagles put down the football, and we picked up our phones and dialed into a conference call. The sausage doesn’t make itself, folks! But it’s amazing to see the response this morning.